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A Bright Shining Lie

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A Bright Shining Lie
First edition
AuthorNeil Sheehan
SubjectVietnam War
Published1988 (Random House)

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988) is a book by Neil Sheehan, a former New York Times reporter, about U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John Paul Vann (killed in action) and the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War.

Sheehan was awarded the 1988 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for the book.[1][2] It was adapted as a film of the same name released by HBO in 1998, starring Bill Paxton and Amy Madigan.


John Paul Vann became an adviser to the Saigon regime in the early 1960s. He was an ardent critic of how the war was fought by the Saigon regime, which he viewed as corrupt and incompetent, and increasingly, on the part of the U.S. military. He was critical of the U.S. military command, especially under William Westmoreland and its inability to adapt to the fact that it was facing a popular guerrilla movement while backing a corrupt regime. He argued that many of the tactics employed (for example the Strategic Hamlet Program of relocation) further alienated the population and were counterproductive to U.S. objectives. He was often unable to influence the military command but used the Saigon press corps including Sheehan, David Halberstam and Malcolm Browne to disseminate his views.

The prologue recounts Vann's funeral on June 16, 1972, after his death in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. Sheehan, a friend, had attended the funeral. The subsequent account is divided into seven "books" detailing Vann's career in Vietnam and America's involvement in the conflict.

  • Book I tells of Vann's assignment to Vietnam in 1962.
  • Book II "The Antecedents to a Confrontation" tells of the origin of the Vietnam War.
  • Book III gives a detailed account of the shambolic Battle of Ap Bac on January 2, 1963, in which the South Vietnamese army suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Viet Cong.
  • Book IV details Vann's criticism of the way the war was being fought, his conflict with the U.S. military command and his transfer back to America.
  • Book V tracks back to give Vann's personal history before his involvement in the war, explaining how his career path to becoming a general officer was likely truncated by serial adulteries and the statutory rape of an Army chaplain's 15-year-old daughter.
  • Books VI and VII give an account of Vann's return to Vietnam in 1965 and his doomed attempt to implement a winning strategy for the U.S. Army and how he eventually compromised with the military system he once criticized.

Sheehan describes Vann as having led more American troops in direct combat than any other civilian in US history. Vann had retired from the Army by then.

Reception and influence[edit]

According to The New York Times Book Review, "If there is one book that captures the Vietnam war in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it. Neil Sheehan orchestrates a great fugue evoking all the elements of the war".[3] The New York Review of Books proclaimed it "An unforgettable narrative, a chronicle grand enough to suit the crash and clangors of whole armies. A Bright Shining Lie is a very great piece of work; its rewards are aesthetic and [...] almost spiritual".[4]

It received the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights 1989 Book Award given annually to a book that "most faithfully and forcefully reflects Robert Kennedy's purposes – his concern for the poor and the powerless, his struggle for honest and even-handed justice, his conviction that a decent society must assure all young people a fair chance, and his faith that a free democracy can act to remedy disparities of power and opportunity."[5]

In September, 1988, Sheehan was interviewed by Brian Lamb about A Bright Shining Lie. The discussion was aired on C-SPAN in five 30-minute segments and was the basis for the later C-SPAN show Booknotes.[6]


  1. ^ "National Book Awards – 1988". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-20.
  2. ^ "General Nonfiction". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
  3. ^ Steel, Ronald (September 25, 1988). "The Man Who Was the War". The New York Times Book Review. Retrieved September 15, 2020.
  4. ^ Kempton, Murray (November 24, 1988). "Heart of Darkness". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved September 15, 2020.
  5. ^ "Book Award". Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. Archived from the original on 2015-06-19.
  6. ^ ""Brian's Song" C-SPAN". pophistorydig.com.


  • Neil Sheehan (1988). A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York, Random House.

External links[edit]